[Viewpoint] Dashed hopes: A Kim Jong-un futureThis is part one of a two-part series by Ambassador Park. The second part will run tomorrow.
After the death of Kim Jong-il, I confess to having had some cautious optimism that his successor would be cut from a different cloth. Kim Jong-un did, after all, experience the world a bit in a Swiss school; a few incidents related by the family’s former Japanese chef, writing under the pen name of Kenji Fujimoto, suggested that Kim III had some progressive (by North Korean standards) ideas. That hope, feeble to begin with, has flickered and died, however. It appears that it is business as usual in Pyongyang, and the outlook for the Korean Peninsula looks less optimistic six months after Kim Jong-un took power than it did immediately after his father’s death. What does the transition in Pyongyang mean for North Korea and its neighbors?
On my sole visit to North Korea, in 1993, I thought I was seeing the Korea not of 1993 but of 1945. Many friends who have visited North Korea have told me that the city’s appearance has not changed in the two decades since my trip. But mostly hidden from view is the sole change that makes a huge difference to the North’s neighbors - its nuclear weapons.
The two Koreas present a breathtaking contrast to the rest of the world. The governing systems are entirely different, the composition of the leadership class is entirely different, and the results of those differences are plain to see, whether in the streets of the respective capitals or in the remote rural areas. The two nations’ positions in the world economy have been determined by their political systems and leadership. In short, South Korea adopted a good system and over a period of decades polished and refined it; North Korea has stuck with its pseudo-Marxist, quasi-religious system ever since liberation.
What has followed from the North’s choice has been terrible for both Koreas. As Choe Sang-hoon, the Seoul correspondent of the International Herald Tribune, put it, South Koreans see the North as a nemesis that refuses to leave it peacefully alone. It is the proverbial “water demon” who lets his victim swim toward the shore and, just when he is about to reach safety, drags him down. North Korea is a stalker-extortionist. It extracts concessions from its neighbors by demonstrating how dangerous and unpredictable it can be.
The new leadership has already disappointed us; it has misfastened the first button of its shirt, and unless the leaders go back and start over again, the shirt will never be fastened correctly. That “first button” for Kim Jong-un was the latest attempt to launch a long-range missile; it was a “Business as Usual” sign in their window that dashed the hopes of the global community for peaceful change. Regardless of whether Kim Jong-un is a clueless figurehead or a powerful young leader, he has shown no early signs of charting a new course.
I hope the window of opportunity for changes has not been entirely closed yet. When North Korea’s leaders reflect on the 17 years of Kim Jong-il’s leadership, it should be clear to them that the only real change in the nation’s fortunes was in its firepower. South Korea is an industrial powerhouse: Its smart phones and refrigerators work, but North Korean long-range missiles (let alone its electrical grid and agriculture) do not. As the economic gap with the rest of the region widens, the ash heap of history looms nearer and nearer for Pyongyang.
To me, the choice North Korea faces is simple and stark: It can continue on the same track and keep 25 million people in abject poverty and slavery while lavishing huge sums on arms for the sole purpose of preserving its system. Or it can decide that the first button is indeed in the wrong hole and start over again, changing its system so its people can share in the region’s prosperity. In his new book, “The Impossible State,” Victor Cha points out what North Korea may not have considered: A nuclear confrontation requires you to think about survivability, second-strike capability and other grim logic of what was once called “mutually assured destruction.”
The North’s leadership surely must understand that their country is not poor because of outside sanctions. They are poor because of their own problems and because of their duplicity, as became clear in the 1990s when secret nuclear weapons programs put a stop to a multibillion dollar aid project to provide desperately needed electrical power.
There are many examples of successful transitions from despotism to democracy, some peaceful and some not. Myanmar is the most recent example of a peaceful transition that holds great promise in attracting the investment the country needs. But North Korea sticks with a broken system.
Why won’t it act in its own self-interest? I believe there are several reasons, all connected to its theocratic system and dynastic succession. Although European kingdoms in the Middle Ages acknowledged a higher, divine power, in North Korea the dynasty and the system are themselves the highest power and are looked on as divine. Kim Jong-un is a secular leader, but he is also the head of a national religion - a juche high priest. We have often seen the lightning and thunder that issues from North Korea when its “supreme authority” is criticized; such criticism is heresy, and heresy must be stamped out.
Although we do not know what goes on behind the scenes, the apparent ease with which Kim Jong-un assumed the leadership mantle should not be a surprise. Leadership struggles have to be hidden behind extreme secrecy, both from the outside world and from the common people. A son of Kim Jong-il and a grandson of Kim Il Sung must be the national leader; he is the high priest by divine right and bloodline. He would be denying his legitimacy if he were to change course, even though logic says he should shake off history’s dead weight and do what the times demand, not simply pose as the reincarnation of his grandfather.
In addition to being quasi-religious, the North Korean ideology and its legitimating principle is that it is different from “corrupt” South Korea. So any course correction to move toward the South Korean development pattern would also be heretical; Kim Jong-un’s pedestal would start to sway. His legitimacy is based on the theory and charisma of Kim Il Sung, even down to such details as his pudgy build, his facial features and the way he walks and talks.
*The author is a distinguished professor at Korea University.
by Park Soo-gil